5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Having crept its way into U.S. theaters with the haste of molasses, “Hunger,” a quietly brilliant and bracingly beautiful Irish drama, has a title that's now far more apt than originally intended. Technically a 2008 film, it's been whetting the appetites of serious American moviegoers for months, decorated with multiple international prizes and rhapsodic reviews from critics who've actually seen it. Though still in limited release, it opens in Philadelphia this Friday, nearly one year after its debut at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it won the coveted Caméra d'or. To say that it was worth the wait is the grossest of understatements. The movie is a rarity among rarities, an unflinching and poetically realized knockout of an art-house picture that stimulates the mind as much as it does the eyes. Brutally dramatizing a particularly deplorable chapter in the history of European politics, it's not an easy film, it's not a pleasant film and it's certainly not one to which you should bring the family. But, for art enthusiasts like me who grow weary of mainstream conventions and – dare I say it – hunger for something more, it's a challenging and highly valued gift.
Unfolding in three distinct acts, “Hunger” depicts what most likely occurred inside the walls of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison during the 1981 Irish hunger strike, the devastating peak of a five-year protest by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who were imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the British government. Though historical knowledge of the events is not required to appreciate the film, it begins with a brief on-screen breakdown of the effects of “The Troubles,” the political and religious conflict of said region that spanned from the late '60s to roughly the late '90s and claimed the lives of thousands. One of the fallen was Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender of “300”), the unbending, Christ-like IRA revolutionary who started the hunger strike at Maze and adhered to it to his death. In a remarkably uncompromising manner and a succinct 95-minute span, the movie chronicles Sands's agonizing final six weeks of life, his body deteriorating while his purpose remains resolute. His struggle is used to represent the struggles of many, not only in the hunger strike – which lasted seven months and ended with the British granting the prisoners' demands – but in the conflict at large.
The virtues of “Hunger” start with its ingredients. Its subject matter is controversial, grisly, fascinating and of international and cultural importance. Though it ends in death, its story is heroic, timeless and relevant, hauntingly echoing the recent events in places like Abu Ghraib. And, of most crucial significance, it is painstakingly directed (and co-written) by English visual artist Steve McQueen, who has a famous name but is virtually unknown to film audiences. Previously notable only in the world of galleries and exhibitions, 40-year-old McQueen has never made a feature before this, an astonishing fact given its superior craftsmanship and bold, vivid storytelling. That such a seriously gritty picture was conceived and visualized by someone who is an artist first is key to its success. That an artist with no prior theatrical film experience (only film and video installations) could conceive and visualize something that so wonderfully speaks the language of cinema is something of a miracle.
The narrative of “Hunger” is communicated primarily through its imagery. Its first third contains hardly any dialogue at all. With the exception of the short, back-story opening, it establishes its setting and characters not by telling you what and who they are but by showing you and allowing you to fill in the holes yourself. Sands is not the first character introduced, nor is his introduction immediately indicative of a protagonist. McQueen initially shows us a Maze guard at home, getting ready for work in a routine that we later realize is filled with paranoia and moral confliction. We then meet a recently captured IRA prisoner and watch as he's processed in the facility, stripped naked and hauled to a cell that's coated, wall-to-wall, with excrement. This soon gives way to torture scenes more gruesome and cringe-inducing than anything in your average slasher film, showing inmates beaten, prodded, probed and humiliated with nightmarish clarity. Incredibly, all of this is captured by McQueen (and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) with stark aesthetic grace.
“Hunger” is what I like to call a “freeze-and-frame” film, meaning, perhaps obviously, that you could hit the pause button at practically any point and be left with a museum-quality photographic composition. Its beauty is consistent, inventive and staggering, making your eyes dart back and forth or holding them transfixed, even when what's on display is enough to make one wince. McQueen is constantly delivering graphic shapes and potent images (he even makes the swirling, feces-smeared walls a handsome sight). It's so rare for a movie to have that freeze-and-frame quality, the notion that, if de-constructed, it could still look as great as when assembled. Even rarer is such a movie that also possesses such an utterly engaging story. Rarer still is one that can do so while dealing with such mortifying material, and rarest of all is that it was done by a debut filmmaker.
The component of “Hunger” that's arguably garnered the most attention and buzz is the portrayal of Sands by Fassbender, whose gut-wrenching, transformative performance is comparable to the shrinking-man work of Christian Bale in 2004's “The Machinist.” Continuing the tradition of devoted actors suffering for their art, Fassbender puts his body through hell in this film, enduring strenuous sequences of physical abuse and drastic, bone-protruding weight loss. The physical dedication is, of course, dramatically effective, but nowhere near as weighty as a single 17-minute scene at the center of “Hunger” that serves as its fulcrum and its entire second act. Seated with a priest whose presence he requested, Sands divulges all of the details and motives behind the impending hunger strike, the first ongoing stream of dialogue after nearly 40 minutes of film. Loaded with political, cultural, religious and deeply personal insights, the one-take exchange is rumored to be the longest single static shot ever in a major motion picture, a mighty feat for Fassbender, for co-star Liam Cunningham and, of course, for McQueen. Its words -- penned by McQueen with Irish playwright Enda Walsh -- are what we hear as “Hunger” makes its final, silent descent, soon arriving at a harrowing conclusion that is, like the rest of the movie, unforgettable.